With her debut feature-length film, The Babadook, director Jennifer Kent wants to show horror moves can explore serious themes, not just dismember teenagers and terrify idyllic families who move into haunted houses. Her movie tells the story of a single mother, Amelia, who struggles with the loss of her husband and hates her six-year-old son, Samuel. When they move into a new house, Samuel finds a pop-up book called Mr. Babadook, which contains a monster that goes by the same name. In its attempt to kill the family, Mr. Babadook brings Amelia and Samuel together. It's sweet, in a way.
While the monster has frightened audiences thanks to Kent's old-school special effects, critics and film festival–goers have walked away praising the director's style and exploration of mother-son relationships. "The Babadook has the elaborately fabricated look of a giant pop-up movie, sporting the kind of intricately detailed and resolutely analog visual design one associates with the early films of Terry Gilliam or the recent ones of Wes Anderson," Scott Foundas wrote in ariety. "Through it all, Kent never compromises the emotional reality of her characters or exploits their suffering for cheap shock effects."
Anyone familiar with Kent won't be surprised by the film's elaborate style and emotional depth. She hails from Australia, where she trained as an actor, and began directing by assisting Lars von Trier on Dogville, a gig she refers to as her "film school." In anticipation of The Babadook's wide release on November 28, I sat down with Kent to discuss bad mothers, the serious side of horror, and the sweet side of Lars von Trier. (Spoiler alert: It exists!)
VICE: Where did the idea for The Babadook come from?
Jennifer Kent: I feel it's really important to face our darkness, our shadow side if you like. I really wanted to explore the idea of someone who hadn't done that, and was running from something really tough. And I wanted to explore it in a more abstract way, rather than as a straight drama.
It's definitely a horror film, but I could see how the same story could have been told as a drama about a woman suffering a mental breakdown because she doesn't love her son.
I never saw it being a drama. I'm much more attracted to telling stories in a surreal space—also it was true to that story. The fact that Amelia was unable to face her feelings was a horror to her, a terror that plagued her every moment. My intention was to make the audience feel that. With a drama, we can sometimes sit back with our arms folded and judge, but I wanted to have people thrown in headfirst and feel what she feels. Horror is a very visceral way to do that.
Typically, a villain embodies the bad mother archetype. Why did you create Amelia as a sympathetic character?
I had to tread gently gently on that one, because I wanted us to not judge her—it's a real taboo. When I was trying to do research and find articles on women who didn't love their kids, I didn't find anything. It just doesn't get talked about, but the point with Amelia was to go in feeling empathy, and we do. Hopefully, anyway, we feel for her.
In earlier drafts, though, she was too nice and too good, and I thought, Ugh! I can't stand her. She's not real! So I started to make her lie and say, "Oh, I'm gonna go look after my kid," and then go to the mall instead. Things like this that made her human. That's unusual, I've realized, to see female—or maybe any—characters like that on the screen.
Usually in horror, a mother would need to sacrifice herself to win. Did you purposefully avoid that ending?
That's the expected choice, and I was more interested in exploring how a woman loses herself and how to lose yourself is not always the best option. Motherhood is very hard, and I do see women lose themselves. It's the big lie that we're told—that motherhood is just great and fulfilling and rewarding. Of course, it is all those things for people, but it can also be the other stuff, because you don't have any time for your own life anymore and you have to give up everything for this child. It's also a great difficulty for a lot of women, and it's not spoken about. I thought I was going to get a fair bit of criticism for this role, but women I've spoken to have been relieved actually to see a character like that on the screen.
You obviously have a strong directorial sense. You got your start assisting Lars von Trier on Dogville—which was a drama that felt almost like a horror film. What was that like?
It was like a happy picnic! I will say he taught me an enormous amount just by being in his presence. I'm stubborn by nature, and I needed to know that was OK. That was the biggest gift he gave me, because his visions are not usual, and he follows them to the Nth degree.
The other thing I saw was how brilliant he is with actors and how much power he gives them. Most films are very camera-centric by nature, but with him, the actors were always the center of his universe. Contrary to popular belief, he treats his actors quite well. He probably won't like anyone saying that, but he does. He knows how to relax them, and make them confident, and give them time to arrive at those beautiful performances that he gets.
Can you get away with these directorial and plot choices because this is genre film, which tends to receive less "serious" scrutiny?
I see horror as a realm in which you can tackle taboos head on, and bring up serious human questions. If it's done well, it's very liberating. Unfortunately, a lot of people who make modern horror don't even know its power. Horror has enormous power to throw out big questions about human beings and how they behave—that's why I've always approached it with tremendous respect. I see deeper things in this film, and it's OK if others don't, and they just want to come along and get scared. But those deeper things were important to me, and they are there.